Mobile broadband is a brilliant way of getting online when you’re on the move, allowing you do everything you would on a home connection – whether that’s sending emails, surfing the web and even streaming video and music - wherever you are.
The arrival of 4G services courtesy of EE in select areas of the UK means that mobile broadband is now faster than ever, making an even more viable alternative to a fixed line connection.
What is mobile broadband?
As the name suggests, mobile broadband is a service you can connect to on the go. Mobile broadband gives you access to the internet on a laptop computer wherever there is a mobile phone signal.
Mobile broadband is accessed using the 3G mobile phone network operated by Three, T-Mobile, Orange, Vodafone, Virgin Media and O2 or via the latest 4G technology with EE. This means that you can connect wherever there is 3G or 4G coverage in the UK and abroad and get on the internet at the touch of a button.
Mobile broadband is accessed using a dongle, USB modem or MiFi. Simply plug one of these mobile broadband modems into your laptop or PC or connect wirelessly with a MiFi and you can instantly access the internet.
The fact that mobile broadband is designed for laptops doesn't mean that it can't be used by PC owners; in fact, if you're looking to sign up to home broadband but don't have a BT landline or don't want to pay the home phone connection fees, mobile broadband could be perfect for you.
If you don't want to spend £120 to get a landline up and running, just get your hands on a mobile broadband dongle and get connected with no wires. You can choose between pay as you go, contract or SIM-only short term rolling contracts of one month.
With a mobile broadband dongle or mobile broadband USB stick modem, you don't need to connect to a router or an Ethernet hub. You simply need to be in an area with mobile phone signal.
How does mobile broadband work?
It really couldn't be easier or faster to set-up a mobile broadband connection; you should be making the most of your new-found mobile broadband capabilities within a day of ordering online.
Once your new mobile broadband dongle has arrived, you simply plug and play - insert the USB modem into one of the USB ports on your laptop or PC (it shouldn't matter which USB port you choose) and it will begin installing the software you need to get online. This means that everything you need for your mobile broadband connection is on the USB stick. Better yet, the stick is powered by your computer, so doesn’t require an external power cable.
3G vs 4G: what's the difference?
3G stands for third-generation and has been the UK's mobile broadband standard for some years. 4G, which is short for fourth-generation, is a newer mobile technology.
Solely available on EE, 4G is capable of delivering mobile broadband connections speeds up to five times faster than 3G. However, you will pay more for the faster service, which is only available in major towns and cities.
3G is slower, but it's also much more affordable and has the advantage of being much, much more widely available. What's more, 3G is available from a range of different providers, so you've got a choice of who you sign up with. If it's cheap mobile broadband you're after, 3G is more likely to fit the bill.
Who is mobile broadband for?
Mobile broadband could make a massive difference to anyone who travels or uses their laptop in more than one place:
Imagine the difference it could make to your day if you could prepare for presentations on the train or check your email just before you go into the big meeting?
Mobile broadband is for anyone who wants the internet on their own terms. And it's a great way to save time too - a survey showed that using mobile broadband could save business people almost an hour each day!
Take your laptop into lectures with you and you'll have the internet at the touch of a button. Use the internet when you're travelling home for the holidays, on the train, coach or even just in the park with your friends.
If you spend a lot of time on the go then mobile broadband is a must-have. With mobile broadband you can take your laptop anywhere in the UK and get access to high-speed internet. What's more, you can take it abroad and enjoy exactly the same connection wherever there is 3G coverage.
Anyone who wants anytime, any-place broadband access
Maybe you just want to know that wherever you are, you have the flexibility to open your laptop and access your emails, or use all the online applications you would normally use in the office or at home. If that sounds like you, then mobile broadband is exactly what you've been looking for.
Business mobile broadband packages
Mobile broadband ISPs have realised that there's a huge number of business people out there who are keen to make the most of mobile broadband technologies and save time in their day.
Dedicated business mobile broadband packages are now on offer from a range of ISPs including Three, Vodafone, BT and T-Mobile.
Business mobile broadband packages offer freedom to work away from the office and are cost-effective too.
Compare all business mobile broadband deals at Top10 now.
It is worth noting that some business mobile broadband packages charge extra for international roaming. However, you can get an international add-on in some circumstances, so make sure you check with your ISP if you're looking for international mobile broadband.
Best mobile broadband deals
There are a number of factors to take into account when choosing your mobile broadband package, and what may be considered the best mobile broadband for one person may not be for another. As the number of mobile broadband packages on the market increases, it becomes harder to identify which is the best mobile broadband deal for you.
Factors to consider when choosing the best mobile internet provider
This is something that features near the top of everybody's checklist, but it’s not the only thing to consider. When it comes to mobile broadband packages you may find that by spending an extra £5 you will massively boost your download allowance and get you more value for your outlay. Compare cheap mobile broadband
Mobile broadband download speed
Are you looking for a fast mobile internet connection? It’s worth remembering that with slower download speeds you may find yourself waiting longer and longer for pages to load. So be sure to pick up a deal that gives you the best speed for your needs.
As explained above, if speed is your priority it's definitely worth finding out if EE's 4G service is available in your area.
Compare fast mobile broadband deals
Mobile broadband download allowance
Choosing a mobile broadband package with the right download allowance for your requirements is really important. You will find that the charges for going over your download allowance can really bump up your bill. (For more information on mobile broadband download allowances see below.) If you are looking to use your new mobile broadband connection as your laptop’s default internet connection, you should consider packages with the highest download limits.
Mobile broadband contract length
Given that mobile broadband is a relatively new technology, it’s hard to predict what developments will have been made in two years time. If you’re someone who loves to have the latest technology in their pocket, or even someone who is constantly on the lookout for the latest deal around, you may prefer not to be tied into a 24 month contract.
Mobile broadband USB modem
Choosing a mobile broadband modem will be largely down to the package you opt for, however there is a wide range of dongle deals or USB stick modems on the market, which are all explained in our guide to mobile broadband modems below. Compare pay as you go mobile broadband
Mobile broadband coverage
The UK now has around 99 per cent 3G mobile network coverage, however, much like the quality of calls, the standard and speed of that connection will be determined by your location. If you live in an area that you have found to have bad mobile phone coverage, it could be worth sticking with a provider you know has strong coverage in your area.
By contrast, 4G, the sheer of which speed makes it the best mobile broadband technology around, is only available in major conurbations and through EE. However, with EE's rollout continuing apace, 4G is getting more accessible all the time. What's more, providers are working on their own 4G services, which will be launched soon.
Read our mobile broadband coverage guide for more information.
Mobile broadband modems:
A mobile broadband modem or USB stick modem is not a heavy piece of equipment to carry around with your laptop. They are around the same size as USB memory sticks and connect directly into your USB port, making mobile broadband a truly portable experience.
- Mobile broadband USB sticks
These are a lot smaller than USB modems/dongles (usually the size of a flash drive), making them handier and more portable for regular users. USB stick modems are the most popular mobile broadband devices so far, because they are so small and easy to carry.
- Built-in broadband laptops
No need to plug in an external modem with these, as mobile broadband capabilities are built into the laptops and netbooks with which they are sold.
- Mobile broadband Data cards
These are even slimmer than USB sticks, but are less popular and only work on laptops. They also require additional software.
These are compact devices that let you connect multiple devices to the internet simultaneously via a single connection.
Each mobile broadband ISP offers a range of different dongles and data card options. The speeds that you can expect depend on the strength of the mobile signal and the type of mobile dongle you choose.
Mobile broadband providers:
Mobile broadband relies on the 3G and 4G mobile phone network to provide mobile broadband connections whenever and wherever they are needed.
Mobile broadband terminology
3G stands for 'third generation'. A 3G network is the high speed data network that is used by mobile phone companies to deliver mobile broadband services.
4G is short for 'fourth-generation' and is the fastest, most advanced mobile broadband technology there is.
Data allowance / monthly download limit
This is the maximum amount of data that you are allowed to download or upload each month under the terms of your mobile broadband contract. It’s important you choose a mobile broadband contract with a big enough download limit or you could find yourself with some hefty charges for going over your download allowance.
This stands for Pay As You Go - a service which offers an alternative for people not willing to sign up to a mobile broadband monthly contract.
This is another term for mobile broadband.
Mobile broadband v Wi-Fi/Wireless Broadband
- WiFi is restricted to small areas, whereas mobile broadband is accessible anywhere there is mobile phone coverage or there is a super-fast 4G network. You can use it on a train, in a car or wherever else you require.
- A number of security concerns have been raised in relation to WiFi signals, as they run on the same spectrum as microwaves and cordless phones. Interference with the line could also result in delicate or financial information being intercepted.
It doesn't have to be an either/or situation when deciding which type of broadband to choose, as nearly all the major mobile networks have combined the two by offering access to over thousands of free WiFi broadband areas in the UK with their mobile broadband packages.
The beauty of combining mobile broadband with WiFi hotspots is that it gives users the chance to access faster connection speeds than are possible via 3G. Some providers even have a WiFi search where you can enter your postcode to find out where the nearest free WiFi hotspots are. These hotspots are a fantastic supplement to any mobile broadband deal.
For more information read our mobile broadband and WiFi Hotspots guide.
Using mobile broadband
Mobile broadband could not be easier to use. When you get your mobile broadband USB stick/modem, plug it into your laptop and wait. After a few seconds the mobile broadband software will self-install and give you the option to connect to the internet. By clicking "connect", your mobile broadband modem connects to the network and you're ready to access the web.
When you're finished you can either click "disconnect" or unplug your USB stick to terminate your connection. It is possible to set limits on your mobile broadband usage to avoid over-using data allowance. Remember: if you are looking to use your mobile broadband 24/7 you should choose a package that has a high or unlimited download allowance.
Mobile broadband and download allowances
Until relatively recently those considering mobile broadband will have been put off by restrictive download allowances offered by some mobile broadband providers. However, mobile operators have done much to remedy that, with packages offering ample allowances of up to 15GB per month.
Most mobile broadband providers were initially reluctant to offer unlimited download allowances with their mobile broadband packages because the cost of transferring data across 3G networks is higher than through home broadband technology. There was also a feeling that the system could quickly become overloaded if everyone had unlimited downloads and could cause slowed or even lost connections across an entire network.
For more on broadband download allowance see our dedicated page what is download allowance?
Depending on a number of factors, mobile broadband coverage varies. In order to check whether there is mobile broadband coverage in the area you will be connecting, click on the providers' websites and perform a street check. The main factor affecting mobile broadband coverage is the distance from the mobile phone mast. The closer you are to it, the faster speeds you will be able to get. This applies for both 3G and 4G mobile broadband.
Excess usage charges
When you go over the designated download allowance of your package you may be charged excess fees.
For more information on excess usage charges see our guide to broadband charges.
Mobile broadband abroad
Looking for a device that you can use when you're on holiday? Look no further. With mobile broadband you can take your USB stick/USB dongle with you when you go abroad and connect to the internet with ease.
Overseas usage comes at a cost, as you might expect. These costs depend on the carrier you are with.
For more information on using broadband abroad, see our guide Broadband abroad
The mobility that mobile broadband offers makes it the perfect companion for a laptop, netbook or handheld device. Though laptops are gaining popularity, they often require quite a substantial outlay. In view of this, high-street mobile phone vendors and ISPs are now offering customers free laptops with their mobile broadband packages that let them spread the cost. The range of mobile broadband offers now on the market represents amazing value.
These deals are especially tempting for students who are looking at their broadband options and considering investing in a laptop. Customers stand to make substantial savings by combining their mobile broadband and laptop. What’s more, as bills are paid monthly they are given the opportunity to spread the cost of their laptop over a 12 or 18-month payment period.
For more great broadband and free laptop offers click here broadband and free laptops
Netbooks are incredibly lightweight laptops designed specifically for sticking in your brief case or handbag and carrying around for easy mobile internet access. Several of the latest netbooks on the market now come with built-in broadband capabilities.
Built-in broadband means that you don't need a mobile broadband dongle or USB stick to get online. You can connect to mobile broadband using the 3G or 4G network at the touch of a button.
Pay as you go mobile broadband
A host of providers offer a range of pay as you go mobile broadband packages. As with pay as you go mobile phone deals, PAYG mobile broadband lets you pay for the dongle and then top it up with credit depending on how much you need.
30 day rolling contracts are also available from selected providers. Compare deals now pay as you go mobile broadband
3G mobile broadband
Mobile broadband, whether accessed via dongle or mobile phone, involves the use of 3G services. 3G technology is made possible by two complimentary technologies - HSDPA and HSUPA (high speed download and upload packet access, respectively).
These complimentary technologies enable mobile broadband users to access up to 21MB speed downloads and uploads with speeds of up to 1.76MB.
For more information see this guide what is 3G?
Looking for faster mobile broadband connection >> compare fast mobile broadband deals.
A problem that many users have with mobile broadband is upload speeds; these are notoriously low, making it time-consuming to upload files onto the internet or into emails.
4G mobile broadband
4G mobile broadband might be comparatively expensive, but it's arguably a small price to pay for accessing the web at speeds that are easily comparable to a fast fixed-line service.
According to EE, the average 4G download speed customers can expect is 8-12MB, with potential maximum speeds of 40MB. This is five times faster than the UK's 3G average speed.
Mobile broadband news
uSwitch Tech is dedicated to spreading news about mobile broadband sales and market trends far and wide. We strongly see it as having the potential to take over from home broadband in the near future. As prices drop, speeds rise and download allowances climb, there is no reason why it can't. At uSwitch Tech, we track the up and coming trends in the broadband market with a keen eye. As a key mobile broadband partner for the majority of the operators out there, we are in a unique position to uncover the latest developments in the market before anybody else.
We write more broadband-related news than anybody else. We constantly source and write mobile broadband news and are currently writing six broadband news articles a day to keep you up-to-date with the latest and greatest developments in broadband technology.
Future of mobile broadband
The UK's best 3G mobile broadband providers offer speeds of up to 21Mb. But the arrival of 4G with EE means the technology touted as the future is finally here. And has brought with it super fast connection speeds.
With more network providers investing in 4G in the next few years, 4G is set to become increasingly available, not to mention affordable. All of which could combine to one day make fixed-line broadband a thing of the past.
Newer, smaller, faster mobile broadband dongles and MiFis are being released onto the UK market on a monthly basis. The largest producer of these devices is Huawei.
With 4G mobile broadband technology now here and already blowing away the present capabilities of 3G, mobile broadband could soon become the default way to connect to the web.
Currently, indoor mobile network reception - including HSDPA networks that are used for mobile broadband - tends to be weaker, meaning that data can be transferred less effectively than it can outdoors.
Femtocells are small broadband base stations that boost mobile reception and are used to improve mobile signals. Femtocells work by using fixed-line broadband connections to augment signal strength and are capable of carrying data over mobile signals at the same speed as the average broadband connection.
Femtocells could reverse the coverage patterns that currently exist, making coverage better indoors rather than outdoors. This technology could allow users to connect to the internet on their mobile phones as they would with their fixed-line broadband connection.
Wireless mobile broadband
Following in the footsteps of home broadband, mobile broadband has gone totally wireless. Now you can plug your USB stick/dongle into a mobile broadband wireless router in order to create a wireless network area wherever you are.
You can also use a MiFi unit, which enables you to share a single connection between a range of devices simultaneously.
Compare bestselling deals here wireless mobile broadband
Mobile broadband UK market
4G is about to transform the UK mobile broadband market, which in recent years has been somewhat static in terms of new technology. Because EE is first to market with a service, it has a real competitive advantage. But with rivals set to launch competing services imminently, the market is soon set to get a lot more interesting and competitive, which spells great news for consumers.
Compare all mobile broadband and free netbook deals Netbooks
With the advent of new mobile broadband technology such as 4G and LTE (Long Term Evolution), the issue of limited download allowances is less likely to be a problem in future. In the meantime, mobile broadband buyers should compare packages with a view to finding the deal that best suits their needs.
Additionally, technologies like 4G will bring faster connections as a result of greater spectral efficiency. This will come at a lower cost to the mobile operators, heightening the chances of mobile broadband overtaking fixed-line broadband in the coming years.